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The History of Brown v. Board of Education Cases and Lawyers
Thurgood Marshall | Oliver W. Hill | Charles Hamilton Houston | Spottswood W. Robinson III | The 5 Cases | Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court text | 14th Amendment text

Charles Hamilton Houston Charles Hamilton Houston

Charles Hamilton Houston was born on September 3, 1895 in Washington, D.C. A lawyer and educator, he was instrumental in laying the legal groundwork that led to U.S. Supreme Court rulings outlawing racial segregation in public schools.

In 1915, Houston graduated as one of six valedictorians from Amherst (Massachusetts) College. After teaching for two years at Howard University in Washington, D.C., he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was commissioned first lieutenant in a segregated infantry training unit. He was later recommissioned a second lieutenant in field artillery, and served in France and Germany during World War I.

Following his discharge in 1919, Houston enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He earned an LL.B. in 1922 and a Doctorate of Juridical Science in 1923, becoming one of the few lawyers of his time to earn a doctorate. He went on to study civil law at the University of Madrid. He was admitted to the Washington, DC bar in 1924. Although Houston practiced law with his father until 1950, he was also a law professor and legal counsel for the The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during that time.

As vice-dean of Howard University Law School (1929-35), Houston led the school's successful efforts to attain accreditation by the Association of American Law Schools and the American Bar Association. He shaped the school into a significant institution, at the time training almost a quarter of the nation's black law students, including Thurgood Marshall, who later led the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to many Supreme Court victories against segregation.

Houston made significant contributions in the battle against racial discrimination. After joining the NAACP as part-time counsel in 1934, he served as Special Counsel from 1935-38. A towering intellectual, Houston was one of the principal legal and social architects of the litigation campaign that developed into the work of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He argued several important civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1939), he argued that it was unconstitutional for Missouri to exclude blacks from the state university's law school when, under the “separate but equal” provision, no comparable facility for blacks existed within the state. Houston's efforts to dismantle the legal theory of “separate but equal” came to fruition after his death in 1950 with the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, which prohibited segregation in public schools.

Houston's contributions to the elimination of legal discrimination went largely unrecognized until after his death. He was posthumously awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1950. Several public schools bear his name, as does the main building of the Howard Law School, which was dedicated in 1958.

Excerpted with permission from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund,

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